'Very, very hard to breathe': Experts call wildfires a 'major public health concern' for Canada
Chris Tanych woke up with a coughing fit in the early hours of Wednesday morning as a smoky haze from wildfires in Quebec and northeastern Ontario blanketed Ottawa for a third straight day.
Tanych, who has asthma, said matters only got worse for his health by the afternoon, when air quality in the capital city remained high risk under Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). Toronto’s air quality was also deemed high risk on Wednesday and ranked in the top five worst air quality and pollution city rankings around the world.
“It's like I'm a 50-year-old smoker, like I have to clear my throat constantly. I feel like I have a frog in my throat, I’m coughing up phlegm,” the 28-year-old told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“It’s very, very hard to breathe outside. I go outside and after 10, 20 seconds, I start literally feeling like I'm about to cough my head out and I go into a violent cough.”
Tanych works as a landscape advisor, personal training specialist and a golf coach and said he’s having to take time off work because he can’t perform physically with the smoke lingering in his city, which he likened to campfire smoke. His mental health has also taken a hit.
“I’m anxious, depressed, gloomy,” Tanych said.
“I’m actually planning to go visit my mom in Gananoque for a few days until the smoke clears over — pun unintended.”
As forest fires rage across the country, experts are sounding the alarm over the physical and psychological impacts of the wildfires and saying that they pose a serious public health issue, which individuals and governments need to acknowledge and act upon.
“It’s definitely a major public health concern,” said Matthew Adams, an assistant professor in the department of geography, geomatics and environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Raluca Radu, a registered nurse who teaches a course on the health impacts of climate change at the University of British Columbia, seconded that remark.
“Given the fact that the climate crisis is only getting worse, we do need to take into account wildfire smoke as a public health concern that we should have preparedness in place for, from year to year,” Radu told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
HEALTH IMPACTS OF WILDFIRES
The physical health impacts of wildfires vary in different regions, Adams said.
In areas like Toronto and Ottawa that are experiencing smoke from fires that are burning elsewhere, he said people may experience short-term symptoms like coughing, congestion, dry eyes, watery eyes and rapid heart rate increases, which usually happen the day of exposure up to the following three days.
People with asthma or other respiratory and heart diseases may feel those conditions flare up. In serious cases, they may also end up in the hospital.
In areas such as Western Canada and parts of Quebec, where there are persistent wildfires, Adams said residents are likely to experience those short-term symptoms in addition to possibly developing heart and respiratory diseases due to long-term smoke exposure.
A cyclist rides as smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec obscures Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickWildfires can also impact people’s mental health, Radu said, noting that ecological anxiety tends to instil fear in people when they look at the future threat of climate change.
Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, lack of sleep and not wanting to engage in activities are some of the things to look out for, she said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may also present in people who have previously been in close proximity to wildfires or have had to evacuate their homes due to a fire.
WHO IS MOST VULNERABLE?
The elderly, young children, pregnant women, people experiencing homelessness, those with pre-existing health conditions and people who work outdoors are among the most vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfires.
“We know that the climate crisis is also an equity crisis, so for individuals in these categories who don't really have an option in terms of how they sustain themselves (and) their jobs expose them to these unfortunate conditions, we see those risks are exacerbated in these populations,” Radu explained.
Indigenous communities are also vulnerable in the face of wildfires, Radu said, as they tend to live near forested areas or wildland and rely heavily on the environment.
“They are so deeply connected to the land and so when you disrupt them from land-based activities, which is such a critical part of their livelihood, that will have significant mental health repercussions on those populations,” she added.
MITIGATING THE HEALTH IMPACTS OF WILDFIRES
In order to mitigate the health impacts of wildfires, experts say action is required from both the community and individual levels.
At the community level, Radu said governments need to ensure that emergency preparedness plans and public health alerts are in place and widely accessible so people know how to protect themselves when there is a wildfire and/or poor air quality where they live.
“There needs to be a stronger effort from these sources to ensure every group of people is reached,” Radu said.
As part of those emergency preparedness plans, she said opening recreation centres and facilities to the public during such extreme weather events could help people find relief and still look after their physical and mental health by exercising indoors and interacting with others.
Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said the federal government should launch a national campaign on wildfire protection education.
“That would actually be at the very top of the list because we know people will act when given that guidance,” he said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
In a statement Wednesday, which was also Clean Air Day, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said he is committed to working with partners to fight climate change and ensure Canada has the policies, programs and resources in place “to promote clean air and reduce air pollution across Canada.”
“The Government has taken action to protect Canadians from the adverse effects of air pollution through regulations on emissions, creating national air quality standards, and providing the Air Quality Health Index forecasts for communities across Canada,” Duclos said.
“I believe that by working together, we can make a real difference and ensure that future generations will be able to breathe clean, healthy air.”
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Health Canada said the Public Health Agency of Canada said it “regularly undertakes a range of activities to support Canada’s preparedness and response capacity on an ongoing basis,” including stockpiling of medical supplies, equipment, and pharmaceuticals for the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
Among other things, the federal department said it has also co-ordinated the delivery of supplies such as cots, blankets, ward boxes, and disposable sheets to Alberta to support the province’s wildfire response, and deployed air quality monitors to Nova Scotia, British Columbia and the Yukon to monitor indoor and outdoor quality impacted by wildfire smoke.
At the individual level, Radu recommended people get familiarized with the AQHI so they know when it’s safe to go outside and create a support network with their loved ones — especially people who are vulnerable — to know when to look out for one another in the face of a wildfire or poor air quality.
Wearing masks outside where there’s poor air quality is another protective measure people can take, she noted.
Adams, meanwhile, said people who are exposed to the short-term effects of wildfires should stay inside while air quality advisories are in place. As for people who live in wildfire-prone areas, he recommended purchasing an air purifier and making sure their furnace and air conditioning filters are cleaned regularly to reduce the amount of contaminants in their home.
To mitigate the psychological impacts of wildfires, Radu encouraged getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night, eating healthy, engaging in indoor physical activity as much as possible and staying in contact with friends and family.
Feltmate said it’s crucial that Canada adapts to the extreme weather risks that are being felt across the country — from extreme heat, to flooding, to wildfires.
“As bad as things are now, they are going to get worse going forward for sure. Climate change is irreversible — period. It's here to stay. We're not going backwards. And we better learn to adapt and we know we need to adapt rapidly,” he said.
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